Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time [63]

The Trip of a Novice Outside Paddler

By Terry Renford

Well, the Easter Long Weekend was coming up. What a good opportunity to go for a decent paddle. Good Friday, it has a ring to it, don’t you think.

Living at South Maroubra I am only a short stroll to Malabar (or Long Bay as those unfamiliar know it as). I have just started to take the opportunity to paddle outside, down to Wedding Cake Island (Coogee) and back. This I have done about four or five times. So with a four day weekend coming up, why not take the opportunity to just keep going a little further. If when I get to Coogee I were to simply keep going North, I would be at about Diamond Bay by the time I would normally be back at Malabar. Hmmm, Manly is not that much further, and may be after a lunch stop there, I could even make it all the way to Long Reef for a decent day’s paddle. Yeah, seems like a good idea.

Now, if I were to plan this as a multi-day trip, I could continue through to Pittwater the next day, then on to Brooklyn the following day, where hopefully I might be able to talk my wife into driving up to pick me up, with the bribe of a lunch.

What a good idea.

I started planning. I laid out on the dinning room table all I intend to take in my kayak. Here goes the boss again. “Where are you going?”, “When am I going to get my table back?”, “Clear all this off from here!” Oh well, maybe, if I feign selective deafness, I can get away with it for a few more days. Am I dreaming! There was my camping gear – clean, dry clothes to allow for changes in conditions; toiletries; first aid bag; paddling gear; food; water; safety equipment; camera; weather forecasts and updates; maps. Maps! What maps? Where to get them? Tried the sites recommended by the club members, but I couldn’t get them to print. Secure sites, damn it.

Buy the GARMIN Blue Chart CD-Rom!

Now, produce maps to plan and plot a route and break up the distances. The Coastal Waters Forecast for the weekend (Broken Bay to Port Hacking): Friday, winds NW 5/10 knots tending NE and increasing to 13/18 knots in the afternoon. Sea rising 1 to 1.5 metres. Swell NE 0.5 meters. Saturday, winds early SW change 20/30 knots. Sea 2 to 3 metres. Swell S 1 to 2 meters. Sunday, winds SW 15/25 knots easing.

Tides (Sydney) Friday, high 08:33 – low 14:30. Saturday, high 09:10 – low 15:00. Sunday, high 09:50 – low 15:31.

It looked good for Friday. Saturday would be OK if I hugged the coast and allowed the blow to pass over me. There was little in the seas and the surf was quite small, so a beach landing would be OK if I decided I needed to. And by Sunday my plan was to be inside Pittwater, and on protected waters again.

I made my decision to go, so I began to pack up all the clothes, food and gear off the dinning room table. At this point my wife was walking around with a huge smile on her face, and even helping me pack. Strange, I thought she should be showing some concern for me going on this solo trip, or was it that she was just sooo happy to be getting her dinning room table back again? My son dropped me at Malabar at 08:15 Friday morning. What a magic day, it was warm and the sun was shining, the bay was like glass. Looking out through the bay, the outside looked calm. We emptied the car and I packed the kayak at the water’s edge, changed, filled the water bottles, grabbed snacks for on water, and headed off through the bay by 09:20.

I took a break off Wedding Cake Island (as usual) at 10:10. I had been looking forward to this. It was an easy start to the trip with the wind at my back and a slight following swell, but my back, arms and shoulders had been sore and aching slightly since I set off. Started up again after 10 minutes, hoping that the soreness would soon work itself out. Next break was 11:00 off Diamond Bay. Feeling great, all the aches and pains had gone, settled into a good, easy pace. I was really enjoying being on the ocean. This was a new sensation for me, being off the coast by myself in an area I had not paddled before, a little disconcerting at times, but mainly eye-opening, exciting and with a sense of self-satisfaction.

The paddle across the Heads was boring and seemed long and slow. Still seemed to be making reasonable time though, while not making too much work of it. Made Shelly Beach (Manly) for a lunch stop at 12:10. I was feeling rather tired and looking forward to a break out of the kayak and having a hot coffee and lunch. I phoned home to tell them of my progress, and then settled down for lunch.

Shelly Beach was very protected from the SW weather. Warm, sunny and a perfect place and distance for me for a decent break. I enjoyed the stay, but I could see Long Reef off in the distance and I was excited by the thought of getting there and completing my planned day’s paddle. I set off after a break of just over an hour with the weather still in my favour.

Approaching Long Reef, I was scanning for the breaking waves marking the large shallow bar off the middle of Dee Why and the reefs around Long Reef that are shown on my maps. I had been told by club members to give Long Reef a wide berth, particularly on the northern side. However, it was right on low tide so the reef was easily distinguishable, but I was still weary after the stories I had been told and I went very wide. Arrived at Fisherman’s Beach (northern side of Long Reef) at 14:40 very self satisfied, feeling fit enough and well enough that I could turn around and paddle back to Malabar. No, just kidding. I quickly resisted the thought and after settling my kayak in, I phoned home again to let them know I was OK, then checked into the SLSA Northern Beaches Communication Centre (next to the fishing club hut) to get the latest weather forecast for Saturday. They told me of the approaching south westerly blow expected for that night and accompanying rise in seas. I thought to myself that I had been getting the same predictions from the Bureau for the last three days. I decided to wait and see what the weather would bring the next day and take it from there. That done I walked to the hotel for a couple of beers and watched the football, before heading back to the beach for dinner and made a camp for the night. A pleasant end to my first full day’s solo paddle on outside waters.

The forecast south westerly blow did arrive during the night, but dropped off around day break. While having breakfast and packing up, looking north along the coastline the seas were smooth with no swell along the beach line and very small, if any, surf breaking on the beaches that I could see. I decided to go, initially intending to follow the shore line. I took to the water at 07:20 and the wind started to blow again just as I set off. I changed my plans and headed in a straight line north towards Bangalley Head instead of following the shore line. It was the shortest distance after all, I said to myself. I was starting to get a nice lift by the strong following wind.

Before too long I was getting a huge lift. I was out quite a way off the coast now. The wind was strong, the predicted 20/30 knots could possibly be right. There was a good deal of broken waves out there too, maybe the 2 to 3 metre seas and 1 to 2 metre swell predicted could also be correct. On some of them I felt I was riding some 40 – 50 metres, who knows, maybe more. Some swells I picked up were starting to get a bit too big; they threw me onto the wave in front, while others, even though they were fat, seemed too big to handle altogether and I pulled off them quickly. I had the wind, seas, and swell all in my favour. I felt like I was flying! What a rush! The adrenalin was really pumping; this was hugely exciting for me. I was out off Bungan Beach now and there was a yacht further to sea of me by about one km at maybe 20 past the hour. It looked to be sailing with only a reefed mainsail, even allowing for the angle of my view it still took 40 – 50 minutes to draw level and pass me. I was working hard now; I was off Newport Beach and I noticed a couple of boats lying inside the reefs in the lee of this wind and sea. My mouth was dry, but I was not game to take my hands off the paddle to take a drink or snack. I was more excited than worried.

There was a loud bang a little way off to my rear and towards the coast. It sounded so loud I thought it was a boat landing back on the water after jumping a wave. If it was a boat, it was too close for my liking. Had he seen me? I looked around; there was no boat, it was a just a wave breaking. The size of the following sea as I looked around took me by surprise, (understatement). I thought I was coping well enough; but this puts another dimension to being out here in these conditions and I told myself to not look behind again. A little later and without paddling with it, I was picked up by a wave, but instead of it throwing me over the top of the wave in front, it buried me into it and I popped out half-way down the front wave. I looked around again to see what was happening. I thought I had decided not to look around again I reminded myself; I was now thinking that if I came out in these seas, the way they were running, I could end up in Norfolk Island (What better incentive to stay upright did I need?).

Off Avalon a couple of fishermen were heading back to Fisherman’s Beach from the north. At about 500 metres or so to sea from me they noticed me and changed course to meet me.

“What are you doing out here? Are you all right?”, they ask.

“Yes, I am OK. I am just heading to the lee of Bangalley Head, I will be fine there.”

This was now less than two km by my reckoning.

“You must be pretty keen? Are you sure you are OK?”

“Yes. It’s not far to the Headland. I will be fine.”

We parted. Was I keen, as they said, or was I just a little silly?

My maps showed reefs around the base of Bangalley Head, so from somewhere off the Hole in the Wall, I kept a lookout for breaking waves to show their whereabouts. However, with the state of the seas I couldn’t tell the difference between breaking waves on the Bangalley Head Reefs and the seas generally. I decided to set a course that gave the Headland a wide mark.

Rounding Bangalley Head was like paddling into a lake, only better. Around to Whale Beach and onto Palm Beach, it was calm, absolutely no wind, zero seas and swell. Nothing! It was amazing the stark differences in such adjacent seas.

I arrived on Palm Beach at 09:10. In my initial planning I anticipated I would be by Palm Beach about lunch time. I phoned home to let them know how things had progressed so far, then made myself comfortable and had a snack. I had never been to Palm Beach before, so I thought I would take the opportunity to spend a couple of hours looking about this lovely part of Sydney. A walk up to the lighthouse affords a great view of the area and a chance to check out the conditions that lay ahead of me inside Barrenjoey. It was full of white caps, and a strong running outgoing tide. I thought I would leave this next leg for a bit and relax on this beautiful beach.

While on the beach I reflected on my morning’s paddle. I calculated the distance travelled from Long Reef and the time taken. I estimated I had averaged 9.8km/h. Not a bad average I thought to myself, when you considered I was probably bracing as often as I was paddling in the seas outside and then paddling on dead water once Banhalley Head was rounded.

With hindsight I guess it was not too bright of me being out there in those conditions by myself. However, at no time did I feel really threatened. It was all a new experience to me, a hugely steep learning curve and one that I have taken both positives and negatives from. I was steeled throughout in the knowledge that on the previous Sunday I had been paddling around in the Sydney Heads area and down through Middle Harbour (this was the day that there were massive waves closing all the eastern beaches and the Manly ferries were cancelled because of the rough conditions). In fact I had felt far more threatened and less safe on my Harbour paddle than I had off Avalon. Previously I would never have gone outside in the conditions I encountered off the northern beaches. I guess I only went out on this occasion because it was the next leg of an already started trip and I was able to ease myself into the conditions from the relative calm of the lee of Long Reef Headland. Also, I felt the safety of calm beaches was a good fall back and reachable at all times. Maybe I would not go out in similar conditions again. But at least I felt secure in the knowledge that this time I did handle those conditions by myself and with reasonable safety and could do so again if the need arose. I find that the best lessons are learnt by extending your experiences and your comfort zone. However, I think you should think of yourself as extending an imaginary elastic band and give yourself room to spring back into your comfort zone if things look like starting to go array. As for myself, although I was quite away off the northern beaches for most of the time, I always felt I was in touch with the beaches if things started to get out of hand and I needed to head to the safety of a calm beach landing.

After a pleasant two-and-a-quarter-hour stay at Palm Beach I headed off again, rounding Barrenjoey Head to do battle with the white caps and tide inside Broken Bay. I pulled into a small tidal beach almost under the West Head Lookout, Broken Bay. I was way early at this point, it was still only 12:30 and I originally thought I would get there about mid, to late afternoon. I had planned to stay my second night at this point.

I decided on a change of plans. There was still plenty of daylight left, so I phoned my wife letting her know where I was up to and asked if she could pick me up that afternoon if I were to continue on to Brooklyn. All was fine, so I set off for Brooklyn. It was hard work paddling against the outgoing tide in Broken Bay. I had been paddling for what seemed like hours and should have seen Brooklyn much sooner. I pulled up to a dingy, asking which bay leads to Brooklyn only to find out I had misread my maps and continued along Cowan Creek and through into Jerusalem Bay. Shit! This mistake had just put about 10km extra on my paddle, not to mention the tide factor. It was now almost the tide change and I had about 45 minutes to get around to the Hawkesbury River before it changes to incoming and I was paddling against it again.

My wife phoned to ask where I was in Brooklyn. I told her I had misread my maps and I was still in Cowan Creek and could be another 45 minutes to 1 hour before I was there. Well, this was another notch on my learning curve. Next time I would lay my maps on the deck displaying the direction of travel.

I arrived at Brooklyn to be met by my wife, unpacked my kayak and changed then loaded the car and headed home. All the way back in the car I retraced my trip in my head. I felt a mix of contentment and self-satisfaction. What I had initially planned as a three day trip, I finished in two days. This was the furthest I had paddled outside and was my first outside overnighter. Added to this, I did it as a solo trip. During the trip I put myself out of my comfort zone on a number of occasions and on each occasion there was plenty to learn. Though the most puzzling thing that occurred to me was that the more I experienced, the more I patently obviously needed to learn. When will this ever end? Never, I hope!

Well, when I was originally planning this trip, “it just seemed like a good idea at the time”. Would I do it again? Yes, in a heartbeat. But given similar conditions, maybe I would prefer to share the experience with another/others. The company would be nice. Or could it be that it would ease my mind and be just a bit safer?